A 2006 draftee of the Carolina Hurricanes, restricted free agent Justin Krueger just completed his first full year in the AHL after 4 years at Cornell and a season in the Swiss NLA. The 6’3”, 205-pound defensive defenseman put up mild offensive totals, but did manage to collect a plus 16 rating in 58 games while playing for the Hurricanes' AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers.
The past three years, Justin has joined up with Team Germany for the World Championships each spring. Hockey’s Future caught up with him for a chat after a disappointing 3-2 loss to Team Latvia in the preliminary stage of the 2012 tournament in Stockholm.
Hockey’s Future: Justin, it was a close, hard-fought battle to the very end, when Latvia scored on the power play to take the lead. Did that goal kind of surprise you guys after you had scored two in a row and gained the momentum?
Justin Krueger: Both teams created a lot of pressure and you know, the Latvians were able to show that they have a lot of skill. They created a lot of chances with that skill and they managed to put some in. I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, looking at how the game went back and forth. We reacted after that goal and knew we’d have to fight back. We had a lot of chances too and just couldn’t score. It was a tough battle throughout and we knew it would be coming into the game. Unfortunately for us, Latvia played just a little bit better.
HF: Is that something you guys talked about in preparation for the game, that Latvia is kind of at an even keel with Germany internationally, all things being equal, and that they’d be a direct opponent for a similar placement in this tournament?
JK: Yep, I’d say we came in giving this team a lot of respect knowing that we’re similar strength-wise and we know we’re both close. We always have tight games. It’s always about who is going to put in that extra something. For the fans, it’s definitely very exciting because these games are always close.
HF: Team Germany is currently without a number of the more recognizable names from the NHL or even the AHL. What kind of effect does that have on the players who are here or does it not have any effect whatsoever?
JK: It’s like that every year. You never know who is coming from where or when. You always hear about possible NHL stars coming or not depending on injuries and all that. But once the tournament starts, it’s the guys who are here that count. You’ve got to do what you can do with the team you’ve got here and hey, we have a great group of guys. No matter what, we’ve just got to find ways to win every year.
HF: What are some of the positives you’re going to take from tonight’s game?
JK: We definitely created chances and saw that we could get back into a game if we need to. We recognized that we’ll have to bring some more grit into the offensive zone in order to score some more goals. Defensively we saw that we just simply have to play more physical. We had some hits, but not enough. Not enough for our team. We’re supposed to be a tough team day in and day out. We got to be tougher next time.
HF: More meat and potatoes kind of play necessary?
JK: Yep, you can say that.
HF: How was year personally in the AHL?
JK: Overall, personally, I did well. It was a tough, long battle. I went over there and it was really tough, even in the AHL, to get my ice time. It’s such a battle. So many players, so much competition. It was a real battle at first. It took a lot of time. By the midway point in the season, I was earning my ice time and had won over my role with the way I played. It just goes to show that you’ve got to have a lot of patience. I had that all season and kept working, but unfortunately I never got called up. But you just got to keep battling and reaching for that ‘NHL’ goal.
HF: Of course! What kind of feedback did you get from the Carolina organization?
JK: It was actually some pretty positive feedback once the season concluded, but unfortunately our team didn’t make the playoffs. I was told at times that I was ‘close’, but unfortunately you never really know what that ultimately means. I mean I know I’m close, I can feel it, but you just got to keep giving it your all and get better. Once the chance comes, you just got to take it. So I have to keep working for that chance.
HF: Do have any plans of taking part in the team’s prospects camp this summer?
JK: Well, I don’t have a contract for next year yet, so that would have to get taken care of first.
HF: Well is it a bit of a risk for you to be playing here at the championships, being a free agent? I mean, it could become a real problem if you were to get injured, right?
JK: Well, I’m a restricted free agent, but one way or the other it is a bit of a risk being here. But then again, everything you do incorporates some risk. In any case, there is of course the player insurance through the IIHF at these tournaments, so that helps. But hey, hockey is never safe, so that danger is always lurking around the corner.
HF: I’ve got to ask you about your father, who spent this past season as an assistant coach for the Edmonton Oilers after many years of being Switzerland’s head coach. Did he watch you play, perhaps via the AHL package that can be ordered online? And if so, does he communicate with you a lot about your game?
JK: Yes. He tries to watch as much as he can. When he’s in Switzerland he’ll be watching these games on Sport1 (German language sports channel) or following them through the YouTube channel that’s available. He loves to watch the national team games.
HF: Does he give you feedback?
JK: Oh yeah, he does and that’s great. I love the feedback. It gives me goals and points of reference I can concentrate on to help myself be better. He’ll have some tips for me after this game just like he did after last game. We’re both in the hockey world and it’s good that we’re both in the hockey world. That strengthens the father-son relationship.
HF: Take a guy like teammate and fellow defender Denis Reul who spent time in the QMJHL and then the AHL. Now he’s playing in Germany again. Do you ever talk with guys like him or others in the team about their experiences in pro hockey, seeing as how some of them have gone through what you’ve been going through in recent years.
JK: Well it’s definitely great that we’re all from the same country and have experienced some similar things in our careers and have similar goals and are then teammates every spring at the World Championships. It’s great that we can come together like this and share things. It’s a great bunch of guy. A fella like Denis Reul; we’ve definitely had some chats. He’s told me about his time in the QMJHL, I can tell him about the college hockey I played in. It’s interesting to hear about the different leagues the guys have been played in. But the two of us both especially know how competitive it is over there to make the NHL. But even this tournament, with all its prominent stars, definitely helps keep that dream alive.
HF: So the NHL is still the goal, despite the options you have by being a young, internationally experienced player with a European passport?
JK: I’ve got the German passport and there should always be options in Europe, but I’m not thinking about that because I want to keep battling to make the NHL. I know the closest you can get to the NHL is playing in the AHL because you can get called up at any time. I’m just not looking that far ahead. I’m taking it a year at a time and definitely investing my time in that big goal. I’m still young and that’s what I’m working for.